Once again we all took shifts on the lower circles, but this time we helped move rubble and debris instead of corpses. I was surprised at the speed at which the work details were shifting away all but the heaviest pieces of broken stone. The lower circles were still mostly in ruins, but a kind of order was emerging, so that we could at least see the scaffolding for the years of work that it would take to restore things.
Bergil paused, standing with his arms folded over his chest. We had been assigned to the same shift, clearing away the smaller and lighter pieces of wreckage after the heavy-lifting details had gone through. I was mildly amused at the thought of sweeping up after a battle the way that one might sweep the floor of a kitchen, for that seemed to be what we were doing. It was good to be working outside, I thought. The hem of my dress swiftly became coated in ashes and dust, but the sunlight warmed my face and my hands.
"Do you think they'll make it all the same again, when they build it back up?" he asked me. "Or do you suppose they'll try to make something new?"
The question had not occurred to me before. I set down the basket full of masonry bits and metal fragments I was holding. There were precious few scraps of wood left on the lower circles, for those had almost all gone to feed the funeral fires.
"Knowing the way the City works, I'd wager they'd try to build it as it was before, or as much as they could," I said.
Bergil looked disappointed at that. "I'd have liked to see something new."
"It can be a comfort to have familiar things about." I shrugged. "But don't listen to me--these things are certainly not in my charge."
"Did you say you'd wager?" he asked, smiling.
"Are you taking me up on that, sir?"
He thought a moment, and then he said, "Yes! Come on." And he led me through an archway whose top had been taken clean off. "Do you remember this courtyard?"
I had to close my eyes and think. "Yes," I began slowly. "There was...a shallow set of steps against the far wall, there. Leading up to a walkway about halfway up the wall, and the walkway had tall windows with arched tops, and thin borders. And two narrow benches against that wall."
Bergil nodded. "And there was a stone circle, just there," he added, pointing. "And a small fountain. I always thought it looked odd, since it was so small compared to the whole courtyard. And yet it was right in the middle, and it looked the smaller for it."
"Yes." I was surprised at how much I remembered. "It was sort of strange, wasn't it?"
"Shall we wager, then?"
"And on what exactly would we wager, Master Bergil?"
"That in…two years' time, this courtyard will look just the same as it used to. You will wager yea, and I will take the nay side."
"Will you, now? And for what are we gambling? I'm not terribly rich."
"Nor am I," he said, his tone now serious. He thought for a moment. "What about two pounds of sweets?"
"Two pounds? That's a lot."
"I know!" he grinned.
"Very well, then," I sighed. And then for a moment I stood stunned, admiring this boy who was so certain of a future in which there would indeed be shops to sell sweets, and people to make them and measure them out. I was nineteen years old; my shoes were covered in grey dust, and I could scarce see past the next fortnight.
"Two pounds of sweets, to be delivered to the winner forthwith in two years' time," he said, and if he had noticed the strangeness of my pause, he did not show it. "So say I, Bergil son of Beregond, messenger of the White City of the Realm of Gondor."
"'So say--'?" I snorted. "You haven't been reading those important messages you've been running back and forth to the Citadel, have you?"
"The ones that aren't sealed can't be too important, can they?"
"Huh," I said, wondering what other sorts of things he knew. "Well, at any rate, you have your wager." We shook hands upon it, taking one more look at the courtyard, and then we went back to work. I couldn't decide which one of us I hoped would win.
After my shift with the sweep-crews, I had a few hours free and I went back up to the Sixth Circle. Valacar was standing with a cluster of others at the northeast walls, looking out towards the road.
"Are you looking for something?" I asked him. He turned around, startled, but he recovered quickly.
"Riders with news from Cormallen near Cair Andros, where the hosts are camped," he said.
"So I suppose no one's seen anything yet, today?"
He shook his head. "There's been no word since yesterday. When any news does reach the City, it will make its way up here swiftly enough. I suppose I'm not really sure why I'm waiting here."
I shrugged. "We're all quite good at waiting, aren't we?"
He smiled. "I suppose we've had to be, yes. How are you?" he asked, turning away from the walls.
"I'm well enough, thank you," I said. "A bit hungry, though."
"Well, come on, then. That's the best thing you've said all week."
The kitchens were in a mild state of chaos as the members of the work details came and went on their breaks, tired and sun-warmed, light patches of masonry dust clinging to their clothes. I managed to gather up some bread and cheese that had not yet been set upon. I looked around; while the long tables were not full end to end, they were hosting a great number of small groups, and it would be difficult to find any space between them.
"Should we go to your room, then?" I asked Valacar.
He stepped back to avoid a group of young men who were passing through. "I suppose," he said.
Inside, Valacar opened the curtains, and we sat together and ate. I was able to finish nearly everything on my plate, and it did not taste bad.
After several minutes of silence, he said, "Don't take this poorly, but maybe you ought to stop coming around here so often."
"People might start talking," he said.
It took me a moment to think of what he meant, and then I laughed. "About us?" I asked.
"That might seem strange to you," he said. "But you never know."
"I don't care," I said. The thought hadn't crossed my mind before this, and it made little difference to me; all the same, I was oddly touched that he would think of such a thing.
"You should care," he said. "What about--" he smiled. "You did mention a boy, once? With an unfortunate name, if I remember rightly."
"Beren," I said.
"That's right. What about Beren?"
"He's a friend."
Valacar said nothing. I blinked, and I remembered that last time that Beren and I had sat in the garden together, and when I had gone to say goodbye to him. It all seemed like an Age ago, and in a way, it was. "He... He did ask me to marry him." I paused. "I think."
Valacar raised his eyebrows at that. "Really? You think."
I took a breath, and then I stared down, pushing a crust of bread around on my plate.
"I don't think I want to marry him, though," I said slowly.
He nodded. "That's all right, then."
"If I had to marry anyone, it would be him," I said. "I like him a great deal, but I don't really want to marry anyone."
Valacar didn't say anything, and I went on, surprising myself.
"I just don't want to. I don't think I can." I looked around, and inclined my head a little bit towards the narrow bed that sat against the wall. "I can't," I repeated, and I could feel myself flinch.
He was quiet a moment more. "Give it some time," he said, very gently.
I shook my head.
"It hurt," I said. I couldn't quite believe that I was telling him this sort of thing, but for some reason I went on. "More than anything. I didn't think it would hurt so much."
I looked back up at him. He took a breath, as if he were about to say something, but then he stopped himself.
"Anyway," I went on, "I don't know if Beren would even have me, if I told him. A man's got a right to turn away a fallen woman, hasn't he?"
"Many men wouldn't consider a woman to have lost her honor if it was taken from her unwilling."
"That's a pretty way of saying it," I spat. He blinked at the hardness in my voice, and I stopped myself. He was only trying to be kind. "I'm sorry," I said.
He nodded. "He would make no compunction," he went on, "if he's got any sort of decency in him. Which I'm sure he has."
I said nothing. We were quiet for several minutes. Valacar got up, tended to the fire in the grate, and set the kettle amidst the flames.
He sat down across from me again, and when next I spoke, I made my tone as light as I could manage.
"How would you know, at any rate?" I asked. "You've never been married."
"Well, that's true," he smiled, and I was glad that he had followed my lead. "But I am a man. And I'm a little bit decent, I think."
"A little bit," I agreed, and he laughed at that.
I paused, and then I said, "I would marry you."
"I already told you, I'd make a very poor husband."
He stopped and looked at me, and his smile faded. "You're not serious, are you?"
I didn't say anything.
"Are you pregnant?" he asked.
"No, thank the Valar," I said, louder than I needed to.
"That's well, then. I would have consented, under those circumstances," he added.
I felt myself flush, grateful and embarrassed at once.
"You're very kind," I said. "And I like you."
"Thank you," he said, sitting back in his chair. "But not in the same way you like Beren, I hope."
"No. But you're very kind," I repeated. "And..."
He folded his arms. "And women don't much interest me in that manner, if that's what you mean."
"I suppose," I murmured.
"Not much of a romantic, are you?" he smiled.
"I haven't much reason to be, have I?" I asked, looking him in the eye.
"No. I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that."
"Are you a romantic?" I asked.
He snorted. "Not at all."
"Then why should I be?"
"Because you're young," he said. "And you still have a chance."
"Do I?" I said. "I don't know if I have a chance. And I don't think I know what sort of person I am, anymore."
"You're sweet," he said, "and funny. You're a bit shy. You're a good healer."
"I was," I said. I shook my head as all the memories returned unbidden. "I was." I stared at him. "You know, sometimes I think he wanted to make me like him."
"The man who..." I exhaled. "Him. He wanted to make me angry, like he was. Hateful, and scared. And he did, I think."
"You're not like him," he said.
"Aren't I?" My voice broke a little, but my eyes were dry.
"You couldn't be."
"We all could be," I said, "if things were to go wrong enough."
"Well, they didn't."
"Maybe they did," I said, "for me. Sometimes I don't recognize myself anymore. Maybe things went just wrong enough."
"No," he shook his head. "I may be from Amroth, but I've lived here many years. You're a Minas Tirith girl. You're made of sterner stuff than you look."
"That's what I used to think."
He grimaced. "Stop," he said. I said nothing. "I heard that the refugees should be returning soon," he said. "Your mother will be here, again."
I nodded. I longed to see my mother again, as I had for the whole of the Siege, and after. But I was also afraid that perhaps she would not recognize her own daughter, that she would sense something wrong about me. And then what would I do?
"And what about your kin, in Amroth?" I asked him. "Have you had any word from them?"
"Not directly, yet, but I hope to, soon. I hear that the city is safe, there, and that the civilians were able to take shelter."
He nodded, and got up to take the kettle out of the embers in the hearth.
"Tea?" he asked me.
"Yes, please," I said. "And what about you? Will you have your post back, now?"
"I don't know," he said, as he poured out the steaming water. "But," he continued, "I have heard that one of the captains who was on the First Circle the other day made a favorable report to the lord Steward."
"Did he?" I smiled.
"So I heard," he said. "And so I'm sure that you had some mention as well, if that was the case." He put the kettle back in its place beside the hearth.
He nodded. "As for the moment, however, I am still lacking employment. Which is yet another reason I would be a very poor husband," he concluded, and he reached over and chucked me under the chin.
"Smile," he said. "Remember, we won."
The next morning, it seemed that messengers had indeed arrived from Cormallen to the northeast, for the Warden called us all to the atrium for to hear the news. We stood gathered in a loose ring, and I went up on my toes briefly to try to see over the heads of the people in front of me.
"Stop it," said Elloth, who was standing beside me as I shifted from one foot to the other. "You don't have to see him. You only have to hear him."
"I know that," I replied, but all the same I stayed on my toes. "I suppose he's got some sort of message about the Hosts, or the King."
From his place at the ring's center, the Warden silenced our murmurs. He did not have to raise his voice a great deal, because the atrium was built in such a way that sound carried easily all through it. It was nice in times of quiet, but it had been horrid during the Siege, when the moans and cries had rung through the space, building on one another as the hours wore on.
"Gentlemen," he said, quieting down one last group whose members were speaking amongst themselves. "Ladies. Thank you."
While his voice was even, it also lacked the lightness I knew it would have if he had only good news to deliver to us. I had been listening to him since I was very young, and these things were not easily mistaken. Elloth must have known this, too, for she shot me the briefest of glances, and then, looking away from me again, took my hand in hers.
"A message arrived today from the field of Cormallen, where the armies have camped. Captain Anendil of the Sixth Minas Tirith infantry regrets to inform us that..." And here he paused and took a breath. Elloth's grip on my hand tightened. "That Surgeon's Apprentice Laeron is not returned from the Morannon."
In the moment that followed there must have been no few exclamations, or at least sharp intakes of breath. But if there were, I heard none of it. There was only the rushing of blood in my ears. My knees nearly gave out beneath me, but I kept myself standing. Elloth was not so lucky. Her hand still gripped mine, but I could feel her go limp beside me. I threw an arm around her shoulders and managed to keep her from buckling to the floor, pressing my weight up against hers. Just as quickly she righted herself again.
"...have returned safely," the Warden was saying. And now his voice was growing just the slightest bit thicker, this man who had seen us through the Siege and seen at least as much death and destruction as the most seasoned commander of the West.
"Each captain has sent a full list of casualties from his unit, to be posted in the Fifth Circle market square forthwith. We will expect a large number of men in the wards over the next few days as the armies return to the City, but there should not be very many dire cases, as the wounded are being treated at Cormallen. I have no more news at this time, but be assured I will share with you any more that I receive." No one moved.
"You may return to your business, now," he said, and he turned quickly and walked back through the crowd.
I sat with Elloth in the southeast gardens, beneath the same gnarled tree under which Beren and I had sat before he had departed. We didn't speak for a very long time.
"There has to be some mistake," I finally said. My mouth was dry and my limbs were heavy. "There has to be."
Beside me, Elloth lifted her face from where she had rested it in her palms. Her eyes were red, her body as taut as a drawn bowstring.
"I should have stopped him," she said. Her voice was hoarse with tears.
I was quiet, until I realized she might be expecting me to say something.
"You tried," I said. "We all did. There was nothing for it."
"I should have tried harder," she said, her voice growing louder, and although she wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand, her words continued to come steadily. "I know he fancied me. I'm foolish about a lot of things, but not about that. I could have tried harder."
"Don't say that, Elloth."
"Shut up," she said, her voice sharper than I had ever heard it before. "In some ways it wasn't so real to me, if you can believe that. I know," she said, shooting a glance at me, though I had not said anything. "Sometimes I tried to see it all as make-believe, and sometimes it worked. I wanted it to be something else. I could have tried harder. And now he's gone. I'm such a stupid, stupid girl." And with that she put her face in her palms and broke into sobs.
I put my arms around her. "That's not true, either," I said. My mind was blank--I still thought that there must have been a mistake. "It isn't." She was thin, like me, but her body shook with a violence that also belied some sort of strength. At first her arms were wrapped around herself, but then she embraced me and I could feel the warmth of her tears in the hollow of my neck.
"Oh, Ell," I said, because I could not think of anything else to say.
And though I would rather have done almost anything else, I thought that someone ought to tell Valacar, if no one had, yet. For the second time in as many days, I went to his door.
"It's unlocked," he said when I knocked.
When I entered the room, he was sitting on his bed and I could see from his face that he already knew. I shut the door behind me.
"I heard," he said. "Fíriel told me."
I nodded and said nothing. I stood rooted to the floor and the heaviness took hold of me again. My stomach hurt.
He sat with his head in his hands, and then he got to his feet. In what seemed like a single movement, he stepped forward and overturned the table at which we had eaten yesterday. The chairs went with it. Glasses shattered; the rim of the table was thick and all of the pieces were heavy, and it all hit the floor with a terrible finality. I started, taking a clumsy step backwards. Objects rolled and settled.
He was breathing hard, and he stared at the things on the floor as if he were as surprised as I was.
"What am I going to tell his mother?" he asked, and his voice was low and the question seemed all the more terrible for that.
"I don't know," I said. My voice just above a whisper, as though all of the noise had taken the sound out of me. I couldn't look at him. A few sheets of paper had come to rest near my feet, and an overturned well from which black ink was slowly pooling out. It was soaking in to the corner of one of the pages.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
I nodded again, and then I sank to my knees. I began to pick up pieces of glass from the floor. I wrapped my left palm in the hem of my smock and held the pieces there so that I would not cut myself on them.
Valacar swore, and said, "You don't have to do that."
"It's all right," I said. I dropped the pieces from my left hand into a wooden dish which had settled right-side up. My hands were smudged with ink. My throat closed and my eyes blurred over.
He knelt beside me and rested a hand lightly on my shoulder. I looked at him, but I didn't flinch.
He started to say my name, and then I leaned into him and pressed my face into his shoulder. Something went slack inside me like a rope come loose from a pulley. If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have told you that I done all of the crying I would do for the rest of my life, but now I was weeping harder than I could remember weeping for myself. Valacar hesitated a moment, and then he put an arm around my back and a hand at the back of my head. He was thin and warm, and though he had not been at surgery, he still somehow smelled like lye soap. I did, too, for all I knew.
"I'm sorry," I kept saying. "I don't know."
Eventually I let go and sat up again. I felt leaden, and also vaguely embarrassed. Valacar stood up and got me a handkerchief, although he didn't have one for himself, simply wiping at his face with the back of his sleeve. He righted one of the chairs and offered it to me with a gesture, and I got up and went over and took a seat.
He pushed the table back into its proper position, and then he began to gather up the things that had been pitched to the floor. He put a hand up to stop me when I moved to help, and I stayed where I was. He dumped the objects, both broken and whole, in an unceremonious heap on the table, and then he went and sat on the bed.
"Well, I suppose it's like with any of the men," he began. "He knew what he was getting in to."
"He should have. He was at work during the Siege, like the rest of us."
"It doesn't seem the same, somehow. It's all awful, of course, but..."
"I know. It's not the same."
"Did you love him?"
He looked up, startled at the question. Then he wiped at his eyes again.
"Yes." He smiled wanly. "He was the only apprentice they ever gave me. I imagine he's the closest to a son I'll ever get, even if I only had him from sixteen."
"And I had him from twelve," I said.
"I know. You all raised yourselves in the Houses, more or less."
"Cook helped," I said, and he smiled again, briefly.
"I couldn't protect him," he said, and his tone was flat. "I couldn't protect either of you."
"We weren't in your charge," I said. "Not in that way. We're not children, anymore."
"I know," he replied. "But, still."
We were silent for a long time after that, before Valacar cleared his throat.
"I checked the lists on the Fifth Circle earlier today," he said. "You'll be glad to know that there was no 'Beren' under any of the City units. He's safe."
I shuddered with relief and perhaps also with guilt. "Thank you," I whispered.
I asked him about some of the other men who had been in the wards before they had gone to the Black Gate; Valacar remembered seeing or not seeing some of their names, but he said that he would check again later to be sure.
Although I had not been officially re-assigned to the wards, I went back, anyway, and no one seemed to notice. I helped the young man from Rohan with a pair of crutches he had just acquired.
"How are they?" I asked, and he stood up with them, slowly but surely, the first time he had risen on his own since he had arrived here.
"It's all right," he replied. "Strange."
"It will be strange at first. You'll soon grow accustomed to it. And soon you'll need only one."
"Only one. Happy thought," he said sardonically. Then he sat back down on his bed and put the crutches aside.
"Happier than many others," I said.
"True enough," he conceded. He paused. "I heard about that apprentice from your Houses. I'm sorry."
"Thank you," I said, although I almost felt guilty to accept his sympathy, since after all his own loss had been greater than any of mine, and greater than any I could have fathomed.
Maybe he sensed this, because next he said, "We have a verse in the Mark--perhaps you've heard it: Mourn not overmuch, mighty was the fallen, meet was his ending."
"I have heard it," I said. "Your people have many good songs." And then I continued: "When his mound is raised, women then shall weep."
He smiled again, with a sheepish look. "I didn't think you'd remember that second part, I guess."
"War now calls us," I finished. "I remember."
"So you do."
"Does it bring you comfort, that verse?"
He paused, and his smile faded. "Not really, no. But for you, it might."
"And I thank you for it," I said. He practiced with the crutches several more times, and then I said, "We'll be gathering tomorrow evening, just those of us in the Houses. And the men who are staying here, as well, if they like," I added. "Please join us."
He shook his head. "I wouldn't want to intrude."
"You won't," I said. "You're not a stranger. Please."
The following night, we went once more to the northeast gardens. Most of the staff from the Houses were gathered, and many of the men who had remained in the City with us after the Host had marched away. A few of the men and women were lighting torches, kindling one from another and mounting them in the sconces that were molded into the pillars in this section of the gardens. I realized that I had not seen the torches lit in the gardens for a long time--all of our efforts had gone into keeping the wards lighted. A few people were going around, helping to distribute a mismatched collection of wooden and earthenware cups that must have been salvaged from the kitchens.
I helped the young man from Rohan, who was slow but mostly steady on his crutches. Most of the workers and the soldiers were standing, but I helped him to settle himself on a stone bench, and then to stow the crutches beneath it. I sat down beside him so that he would not feel strange for sitting.
Fíriel came over and placed a hand on my shoulder. "How are you?" she asked. I had not seen her at all yesterday, though I knew that she had spoken to Valacar at some point.
"About the same as the rest of us, I suppose."
"Me, too," she said, and then asked after the young man. He replied politely enough.
"What's your name, anyhow?" I asked him, after she had moved on.
"Ceorth," he replied.
Soon after all the cups had been distributed, wine followed in large pitchers. I had no idea where it might have come from, for last I saw, the barrels in the kitchens had looked fairly diminished in number. But I suppose that there always would have been some hidden reserve waiting for us at the last minute, if it came to that. Ceorth poured some wine into the cup he had been given, and then took it upon himself to fill mine nearly to the brim despite my protestations.
"I think you need it," he said.
I glanced around at the other men and women who made up the circle. The light flickered on everyone's faces, giving the illusion that there was more movement than there actually was. These were the people with whom I had broken stale bread day after day in the weeks leading up to the Siege, and after. These were the people with whom I had stood shoulder to shoulder in the thick of things, up to our elbows in blood, cloths wrapped over our mouths and noses to keep out the stench of death. We had shared the weight of stretchers and of living and dead bodies, and we had fed the funeral fires on the lower circles. These were the girls with whom I had shared narrow mattresses in our improvised siege-quarters after our parents had gone from the City. We had plaited one anothers' hair and breathed each others' breath. I looked around, and I was grateful for all of them.
Elloth came and sat beside me on the bench.
"This is Ceorth," I said. "From the Westfold, in the Mark. Ceorth, this is my friend Elloth."
"Master Ceorth," Elloth nodded politely, and for the first time I could recall, she did not smile as she was being introduced to a young man.
"Well met, Mistress," he replied.
I spied Valacar standing across from us, speaking to some of the other surgeons. They had their heads bent down.
"Very well, then," said Nauthir, one of the older surgeons, his voice raised a bit. He had turned in to face the circle. "Valacar, would you like to begin?" Valacar shook his head. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," said Valacar.
"All right." Nauthir raised his glass, and we all did the same. "To Laeron," he said. "To the victorious fallen."
"Laeron," everyone repeated in scattered murmurs, and we drank. The wine was sweet and heavy, and it burned at the back of my throat, as wine generally did on the rare occasions that I drank it.
Nauthir looked around before he continued. "Would the young people like to say anything?" he asked.
"I will," said Nauthir's apprentice, stepping forward slightly. "He was a good surgeon. He worked hard." Again, a scattered murmur of assent. One of the surgeons standing beside Valacar clapped him on the shoulder and said something to him, at which he nodded.
"I don't know how he managed to stop fidgeting long enough to wield a scalpel, but well for him that he did," smiled another apprentice, to gentle laughter. "Not to mention his patients," someone else added.
"He was a good friend," Elloth put in, from her seat beside me.
I thought about one of the last talks we'd had before he'd left.
"He loved Minas Tirith, more than anything else," I spoke up. "He loved this City and her people." I paused. "He wasn't afraid."
We talked about Laeron like that for a long time, and somehow there always seemed to be someone going around to refill everyone's glasses. The young men and women shared stories, and everyone said all the things that you are supposed to say about someone who has died before reaching his twenty-first birthday. We had already seen so many men die young, of course, but as I had said, this was different. This was one of ours.
I think that some part of me still did not believe that he truly was not coming back. This last remaining part of me would not be made to believe until one day, many weeks later, when I was alone in the kitchens and remembering how he had been kind enough to eat the burnt rolls I had pulled from the ovens. And then I would have to sit down, for the weight of it all.
But tonight was tonight, and gradually we shifted from toasts to the victorious fallen to toasts to the victory, itself.
"To King Elessar," one of the men offered, holding up his glass. "To the return of the King to Gondor. Long may he reign."
"Long live the King!"
"To Éomer-king," said one of the young Guardsmen, turning to a Rider who stood beside him. "And to the House of Éorl, who kept their vow and came to us in our hour of greatest need." The Rider smiled and put an arm about the Guardsman's shoulders at that, and beside me Ceorth added something in his own language as the cheers went up.
And so inevitably we went down the line, toasting the Ringbearer, the perian whom we heard had saved us all. We toasted our new Steward, Faramir, and Lady Éowyn of the Shield-Arm, and our own Warden, of course, and every captain of every company whose name we could recall, and then those that we could not recall. Finally we ran out of great people to toast, but somehow there was still more wine about, so we took to saluting one another.
"To Nauthir," said Nauthir's apprentice. He was slurring his words just the slightest bit. "May his wife welcome him back with open arms, like the forgiving lady she--ow!" He was cut off as his master hit him on the back of his head, looking entirely unamused.
In order, perhaps, to take away any unwanted attention from himself, Nauthir offered up his own toast, and to my surprise the name he called was mine. "For her courage on the First Circle." I could only smile at that. I took another drink, and then I stood up.
"To Valacar," I said, looking across the circle at him. "He knows why." A few people laughed at the brevity of my statement, but probably they attributed this to the wine, since it was known that I didn't often drink. Valacar only nodded and gave the barest of smiles, as the men standing with him once again clapped him on the shoulder.
"To your City," said one of the young men from Lossarnach who had helped me get my house back in order the other day. "May she regain her beauty of old, and may her homes once again be filled with fair children and fair women."
"High-hearted women!" added Ceorth, and I turned to look at him in surprise, since he had been quiet up to now. He turned to me and smiled.
"High-hearted women!" echoed the men.
"And to our children's children," said Elloth, and her voice was strong and clear. She, too, had been quiet since her first remark about Laeron. "May they never have to purchase their safety at the price of their innocence."
And at that the laughter died down to a murmur once more, to a quiet scattering of "Hear, hear."
"To our children's children," said Fíriel. "May they have less need of soldiers than of healers."
"I," said the young man from Lossarnach, looking just a bit unsteady on his feet, "would like to offer a saying uttered by Fëanor, himself." He held his cup aloft, and said, "That which slays thee not, shall be as thy strength!"
"I don't think he said that," said his friend, even as the toast was answered.
"He did. He definitely did."
A half-hearted argument flared up, then, and spread to the other parts of the circle. No little wine was spilled on the grass of the gardens as broad gestures were made to underscore points of contention.
"It doesn't matter," said Fíriel, and I turned to see that she was standing on one of the benches. She was smiling. "Here's to, 'Whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.'"
"Like this wine," concurred the young man from Lossarnach.
"Wait and see about that," said his friend.
From there, the official toasts dissolved into conversations. I felt warm and I only listened, staring ahead at nothing in particular. I wondered if I was drunk, and I decided that I probably was.
It was late, and as the group finally began to disband, Valacar stepped forward.
"To Laeron," he said, and it seemed understood that this would be the final salutation of the evening. "And may those who make peace in high places, grant peace for us, and for all our nations." He looked around. "To the fallen."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.